Coaching supernova Sean McVay leading L.A. Rams his own way

LOS ANGELES -- As Sean McVay headed home from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on a sunny Sunday evening in mid-September, his black BMW 750i exiting the interstate and traversing the north slope of the Santa Monica Mountains, the Rams' 31-year-old head coach was 1,400 feet above sea level, and as low as he had been in a long, long time.

McVay had just suffered the first defeat of his career, a 27-20 heartbreaker. He had fallen short against the Washington Redskins, the franchise that had employed him for the previous seven seasons, and Jay Gruden, for whom he'd served as a hotshot offensive coordinator from 2014 through '16. Worst of all, while the outside world might have been tempted to pin the setback on second-year quarterback Jared Goff, who'd thrown a late interception, or chalk it up to the growing pains of a team coming off a 4-12 season, McVay knew better: In a high-stress situation that called for excellence, he had underperformed. After the game, McVay had said as much to his players in the locker room, telling them, "I feel like I let you guys down today." And now, sashaying his way across Mulholland Drive -- atop the hillside that served as the setting for the final verse of Tom Petty's iconic ballad "Free Fallin' " -- McVay, in a mental and emotional sense, prepared to leave this world for a while.

By the time he pulled up to the driveway of his six-bedroom home in Encino Hills, with a majestic balcony overlooking the San Fernando Valley, McVay, like "Get Out" protagonist Chris Washington, had descended into his own "Sunken Place." He did his best to carry on conversations with his live-in girlfriend, Veronika Khomyn, and his college buddy and housemate, Rams assistant linebackers coach Chris Shula. He robotically reached down to pet Kali, his and Veronika's precocious pit bull, as she greeted him at the front door. Yet McVay wasn't really there; for the next several hours, he was awash in a spin cycle of self-flagellation.

You choked, McVay told himself. You had a plan, and you got behind, and you panicked. There was no flow, no rhythm, and you started pressing, running things that made no sense. It was horrible. You lost your mind against those guys. You make me wanna puke.

Eventually, McVay drifted off to sleep, his mind still wrought with deep, dark dissatisfaction. Then the alarm went off -- at 3 a.m. sharp -- and McVay arose a new man. He felt energized, upbeat, even confident. We've got a game in three days, he thought. And we can't let the Redskins beat us twice.

An hour later, McVay was back in his office at the Rams' temporary training facility in Thousand Oaks, excitedly drawing up a game plan to attack the San Francisco 49ers' defense. L.A. would go on to win that "Thursday Night Football" clash in Santa Clara by a 41-39 score -- the team's second 40-plus-point output in McVay's first three games -- offering further evidence that these were not your big brother's Rams.

Soon, the football world would be fully clued in to one of the NFL's most stunning transformations in recent memory. While McVay might be a brutally harsh self-critic, he has nudged, nurtured and energized the Rams with a deftly divine touch, infusing a formerly moribund operation with a joie de vivre that has extended into January.

The Rams (11-5) secured their first winning season since 2003 and the NFC West title, which vaults them into the postseason for the first time in 13 years. After averaging just 14 points per game in 2016 -- by far the league's worst output -- L.A. finished this season atop the NFL rankings at a 29.9-points-per-game clip.

"They've had an incredible turnaround, and you have to give it up for Sean," says Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider, whose team was essentially dethroned as division kingpin by the Rams in Week 15. "People rave about his work ethic, his creativity and his ability to communicate, and for a guy who's that young, it's really, really impressive."

Even in a region that doesn't impress easily, McVay is generating palpable buzz. As evidenced by the "McVay Is The Way" T-shirts being displayed at the Coliseum, there's a new star in Tinseltown -- and the wunderkind whom former Redskins tight end Chris Cooley describes as a "football savant" has a chance to captivate this area like no coach since Pat Riley of the "Showtime" Lakers in the '80s.

"Anybody that spends five minutes with Sean McVay comes away from it and goes, 'Man, that kid's not 31,' " says veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who signed with the Rams last March after a long tenure with the Cincinnati Bengals -- to play for a head coach more than four years his junior. "It's kind of the same as when you're around a truly great player, a future Hall of Famer. You hear people talk about Jonathan Ogden or Anthony Muñoz or Deion Sanders, and they say, 'You knew from the beginning this guy was gonna be special. You could just tell he's different.' That's how it is with Sean."

And that's precisely how it was for the Rams player most impacted by McVay's arrival in L.A.

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Jared Goff was hanging out in Orange County last Jan. 5, four days after his miserable rookie season had ended with a seventh consecutive defeat, when he got a call from Rams executive vice president of football operations Kevin Demoff asking if he could come to a Marina del Rey hotel ASAP. Given that he was 50 miles south on a Thursday afternoon in the traffic capital of North America, a quick arrival was a tricky proposition.

"Kevin and [general manager Les Snead] had told me before they started their coaching search, 'We want to maybe have you talk to some of the interviewees,' " Goff recalls. "Not like I'd be making the decision, but it made me feel good that they were involving me. All of a sudden, I get this call: 'Hey, we've got this guy Sean McVay -- he's here and he'll only be here for another two hours. Can you come up?' I was like, 'I'm in Irvine ... I'll get there as fast as I can.' "

Like most NFL players, coaches and talent evaluators, Goff knew the broad strokes of McVay's rapid rise to prominence. The grandson of John McVay -- a former New York Giants head coach who later became the San Francisco 49ers' general manager and helped Hall of Famer Bill Walsh build a dynasty in the '80s and '90s -- had parlayed that connection into a low-level NFL coaching job right out of college. McVay's first boss, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden, was a former whiz kid whose relentless work ethic, innate communication skills and rapid ascent through the coaching ranks he would soon mimic. Armed with an incredible memory that may or may not be photographic, along with a whole lot of energy and charm, McVay ultimately earned his chops drawing up plays for Jay Gruden, Jon's younger brother. While serving as the Redskins' offensive coordinator, he helped mold former fourth-round pick Kirk Cousins into one of the league's most productive quarterbacks. Now, at 30, McVay was on the verge of becoming the youngest person ever hired to coach an NFL team in the modern era.

As he greeted McVay in a room that would soon be vacated by Demoff, Snead and the other Rams officials present, Goff didn't know what to expect.

"They left us alone for half an hour, maybe a little longer," Goff recalls. "Afterward, I remember texting my dad, 'If they decide to hire him, I'm all in.' "

Goff also texted an NFL Network analyst who, nearly a year later, would write a very long feature story about the league's leading Coach of the Year candidate: "Loved him. Mini Gruden haha. Everything revolves around the QB... If McVay is the guy I'd be fired up"

Full disclosure: A few minutes later, I also got a text from McVay (who, incidentally, is not a huge fan of punctuation): "I loved him bro he is awesome"

From Goff's perspective, McVay's confidence in his offensive scheme and ability to communicate his principles stood out.

"We looked at some Washington film, and he walked me through some of their basic plays," Goff remembers. "I obviously was impressed; just the way he spoke and was able to convey his message. I thought, That guy knows what he's talking about. We talked about the previous year -- what was good, bad and indifferent -- and he asked me some real questions, like what I felt needed to be fixed."

In the wake of the rookie season Goff had just experienced, he might have been tempted to answer, "Everything." After the Rams made a bold trade to draft him with the first overall pick in April of 2016, the former Cal star was excited about playing for veteran head coach Jeff Fisher, whose focus was on the defensive side of the ball. However, offensive coordinator Rob Boras was untested in that role, and by mid-December, star running back Todd Gurley would derisively liken the Rams' scheme to a "middle school offense." After Goff replaced Case Keenum as L.A.'s starter in Week 11, he struggled behind a porous offensive line, managing a 63.6 passer rating (with five touchdowns and seven interceptions) and losing all seven of his starts. Fisher was fired with three games remaining in the season, and many football analysts wrote off Goff as a bust.

So yes, in that meeting with McVay, Goff could reasonably have been expected to vent. Instead, he struck a tone that endeared him to his future head coach.

"You almost kind of gave him an opportunity to make an excuse, and he didn't go that route," McVay recalls. "I loved that about him. He took accountability for what his responsibility was and never looked to blame anybody for whatever it was that didn't work out. It's what stood out. You could just see he was wired the right way. He was a guy that would never go the route of blaming anybody else, but it was all about, 'What can I do to be part of the solution?' And he was also supremely confident in his ability, and I sensed a guy that was just challenged in the right way."

To say Goff has responded to McVay's coaching is like declaring that young Marshall Mathers reacted favorably to Dr. Dre's production. In 15 regular-season games in 2017, Goff completed 62.1 percent of his passes (up from 54.6 percent in '16) for 3,804 yards with 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions, for a 100.5 passer rating -- a collective boom that has rendered the bust label into the "old takes exposed" file. Granted, the Rams enhanced his reality with a slew of key acquisitions, including Whitworth, center John Sullivan and receivers Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins and Cooper Kupp (a rookie who lived with Goff during part of the offseason). Yet McVay's cutting-edge game plans, detailed teaching methods and proactive play-calling approach have made the biggest impact in the quarterback's development.

"Every time a play comes over the headset, you think, We could score," Goff says. "That's just because of the confidence he expresses, and the way we know we can execute it."

That confidence stems from obsessive preparation, an uncanny aptitude -- McVay's offensive coordinator, Matt LaFleur, says his boss' recall of past plays is so freakish, "it inadvertently makes you feel inadequate" -- and an all-inclusive leadership style that exudes self-assurance without ever veering off toward entitlement.

"I think that's one of Sean's best qualities," says Rams assistant head coach/linebackers Joe Barry, who worked opposite McVay as Washington's defensive coordinator in 2015 and '16. "He is really, really good and really, really young -- and usually, when you have that combination, the dude's a total asshole. And Sean's the complete opposite, in any setting. He's more inquisitive than anything. He could 'big boy' anybody, in any situation, and he doesn't."

* * * * *

When McVay was a little boy, he displayed many of the traits suited to his future profession. "He was one of those bright-eyed, highly engaged, competitive little kids," says Sean's father, Tim, a longtime broadcasting executive. "Even at the very youngest of ages, he wanted to win. He played soccer when he was little, and he would run up and down the field like a maniac. Same with basketball; he wasn't tough to spot. And when he got up in the morning, bright and early, he was fired up, and I'd be like, 'Get out of my room.' "

Sean's penchant for self-criticism was also apparent at an early age, both to Tim and his wife, Cindy, an interior designer. Says Tim: "He's one of these guys who wants to do well. He expects himself to do well. And he doesn't want to rationalize or explain away why something didn't go well. There were times I had to say, 'Don't be so hard on yourself. You did pretty good.' And there'd be times when he'd say, 'Hey Dad, I know you love me, but I don't want to hear your pep talk. That was terrible. I'm embarrassed.' "

It helped that McVay, who spent most of his childhood in suburban Atlanta, had many more triumphant moments than terrible ones. He was a four-year starter at quarterback and defensive back at Marist School. As a senior, he led the War Eagles to a 14-1 record and a state championship. After the season, he was named the Georgia 4A Offensive Player of the Year, beating out a receiver from Sandy Creek named Calvin Johnson.

Tim vividly remembers his son's reaction to winning out over the future NFL superstar: "That's kind of a joke, isn't it, Dad?"

McVay signed with Miami of Ohio, which was still riding the momentum of the 2003 season, when the RedHawks ended up 10th in the final rankings. The quarterback of that team, Ben Roethlisberger, had gone on to star for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but Short Sean would not be tabbed as the heir apparent to Big Ben.

"They recruited him as an athlete," recalls Mickey Mann, a linebacker who was part of McVay's incoming class. "He was a real hotshot recruit, so we were all anxious to see him. Then we were like, 'Wait a second ... He's a 5-10 white kid? We recruited him as an athlete? What are we missing here?' But his sheer athletic ability was exceptional, and his work ethic was insane."

Sporting a bangs-heavy hairstyle that Barry jokingly refers to as "straight cheese," McVay found his niche at wide receiver, catching 38 combined passes over his sophomore and junior campaigns. He left a bigger impression off the field.

"If I had to describe Sean, the three things that come to mind would be intense, competitive and no off switch," Mann says. "When we'd work out, he didn't just want to be the best receiver ... He wanted to be the best, period. In the weight room, he'd come down and try to bench press with me and [Chris] Shula and the other linebackers. He was a specimen. He'd do agility drills with the defensive backs and sprints with the receivers. Everything he did, he wanted to compete against the best. And by no means did Sean ever have a sense of entitlement about anything."

Says another of McVay's RedHawks teammates, future Packers and Buccaneers tight end Tom Crabtree: "Coming out of high school, he was a state champ who had put up all those ridiculous numbers, but he was never arrogant about it. He has that football pedigree, that family history, but he never brought it up in a bragging kind of way. He was a model teammate. He was always trying to find that edge."

After college, McVay got a job as the Bucs' assistant wide receivers coach under Jon Gruden, whose duties as a 49ers special assistant in 1990 had included aggregating the players' ticket requests for road games. McVay displayed a similar do-anything, grinder's mentality -- "You have never seen a young person work like this kid," says McVay's mom -- while also unconsciously adopting many of his boss' mannerisms.

When Goff referred to McVay as a "Mini Gruden," he wasn't just pointing to their similar career trajectories. McVay's word choices and speech patterns, right down to the syllables of emphasis, often resemble those of the "Monday Night Football" analyst, who was 34 when he became the Oakland Raiders' head coach in 1998. "They sound so much alike, it's scary," says Rams quarterbacks coach Greg Olson, who was Gruden's offensive coordinator on that 2008 Bucs staff. "And they're both insanely smart."

To Whitworth, who played for the Bengals when Jay Gruden was their offensive coordinator from 2011 through 2013, McVay is "a great marriage of both of them. The looseness and the way he works a room, that's Jay. He's detailed and a grinder and hyper-intense like Jon, and of course, the mannerisms -- completely Jon."

Says Schneider: "I was around [Jon] Gruden when he was super young (when both Gruden and Schneider worked for the Packers), and he and Sean have that same sort of charisma. He even does that thing with his hands when he's talking -- he'll kind of [punch the air] on one word, then do it with the other hand at the end of the thought. It's crazy."

After a year with the Bucs, McVay spent a season working in the now-defunct UFL, as the Florida Tuskers' tight ends coach. He then landed a gig as an offensive assistant for the Redskins, coached at the time by two-time Super Bowl winner Mike Shanahan. With four weeks left in the 2010 season, Washington's tight ends coach, Jon Embree, left to take the University of Colorado's head-coaching job. McVay became the interim replacement -- and there was nothing subtle about his four-game stint, even as the 5-7 'Skins played out the string.

"You know when they hire you as the tight ends coach, and you're a little 5-10 blond kid, you'd better know something," Shula says. "It's a lot of pressure. But he's always been unbelievable at whatever he does."

Cooley, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, was in his seventh NFL season when the neophyte interim took over.

"He was like 24 at the time," Cooley remembers, "and he'd been essentially the quality control dude, so we kinda knew him, and we were like, 'Cool, we like this kid.' Well, within a week, our meeting times have doubled. We're out of contention, and I'm watching dudes walk out of Redskins Park at 4:15, and we're there a whole other hour. Sean's pumped. And after we'd leave, I'm sure he spent another four hours in his office preparing for the next meeting."

Soon, Cooley, against his better judgment, began prolonging the meetings even more by asking questions.

"There's always been this line of thinking in football you get from coaches: 'This is what we're gonna do, 'cause this is how we do it,' " Cooley says. "Well, I'm the person who wants to know why. Sean will tell you whatever you want to know. He'll say, 'You're doing this because this is what the tackle and guard are doing, and this is how the linebackers will play it, and we need this to happen for it to work.' Well, I'm competitive, so I had to spend way more time learning it, so I could challenge him. And the meetings got longer and longer."

McVay's mentality? Challenge accepted.

"Chris Cooley is a close friend of mine now," he says, "but he was a great challenge for me as a younger coach. When you work with really smart players that want to know the 'why,' and they don't understand it just from their position, but they know it from an 11-man perspective ... He forced an accountability on my part to make sure I had the answers, because if you don't, you get exposed. He made me a better coach, just because of how smart he was and how much he understood the game. I looked at it as an opportunity to have a month-long job interview."

Suffice it to say, McVay aced it. He spent the following three seasons as the Redskins' tight ends coach, and when Jay Gruden replaced the fired Shanahan following the 2013 season, he promoted McVay to offensive coordinator. In his second year on the job, Gruden handed over play-calling duties to McVay, a change that helped propel Washington to an NFC East title. By then, it was obvious to most people in the organization that they had a rising star in the building.

"No disrespect to my other coaches, but I learned more about football in my first three months with Sean (as coordinator) than I did my whole career before that," Cooley says. "It changed a lot of how I comprehend and appreciate it. I predicted within three months that he'd be the youngest head coach ever. It's not just that he's a football savant, which he is ... but I knew he'd be a perfect head coach, because he never backs down. If he's right, he's right -- and he will do it his way. I've watched him stand his ground with Jay Gruden, Mike Shanahan, (former Raiders head coach) Bill Callahan -- when it comes to football, it's his way, and he won't quit until he wins. When he knows how he wants it done, he's just relentless."

Cooley was right -- after Washington's 2016 campaign ended with a disappointing 8-7-1 record that left them out of the playoffs, McVay was soon channeling his inner Horace Greeley: Go west, young man. In the end, the only question was which California-based franchise would hire him.

The 49ers' president, Jed York, was so excited by McVay's interview that, a couple of days later, he called the young candidate and gave him the phone numbers of two top general manager candidates, encouraging him to feel out the possibility of working together. The Rams, however, proceeded at a quicker pace and got their man. On Thursday, Jan. 12 -- exactly a week after he met with Goff in that Marina del Rey hotel -- McVay agreed to a five-year contract that officially made him the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, a reality underscored by the fact that he brought his parents to the introductory press conference.

Then came the hard part.

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Last June, Mann and another ex-RedHawks player, Dave Koval, flew out from Ohio to visit McVay at his newly purchased home in Encino Hills. They got in late and were greeted by Shula; McVay was at a function and got home after his guests had gone to bed.

Recalls Mann: "The next morning, I'm still on East Coast time, so I get up at like 5 a.m. and it's totally quiet. I'm tiptoeing around the kitchen, and suddenly there's Sean, going, 'HOW YOU DOING?' It went from 'Here's the Keurig' to, almost immediately, him giving me a full breakdown of the 'We Not Me' culture switch and asking me what I think of it. I haven't seen him in six months, and I'm trying to have a cup of coffee and check out the view, and he's off and running. But that's Sean: no off switch."

Many incoming coaches talk about culture changes; actually effecting one is a tricky proposition. McVay adeptly sold his principles (shared ownership, accountability, constant competition) to a receptive audience; first, however, he did several very smart things.

It started with the staff. Right away, McVay landed 69-year-old Wade Phillips, a former head coach of the Broncos, Bills and Cowboys, as his defensive coordinator. He brought in accomplished veteran assistants like Olson, Aaron Kromer (offensive line), Bill Johnson (defensive line) and Barry. He retained a pair of highly regarded assistants, John Fassel (special teams) and Skip Peete (running backs), from Fisher's staff. His choice for offensive coordinator: LaFleur, a highly regarded strategist who'd been the quarterbacks coach in Atlanta under offensive coordinator (and newly hired 49ers coach) Kyle Shanahan, Mike's son.

"There's a lot of diversity on that staff," Cooley says. "He did a brilliant job of putting it together. A lot of young coaches make the mistake of [only] hiring guys they know. Sean didn't."

He also showed emphatically that, unlike some young coaches, he was secure enough to hire experienced, highly regarded assistants without feeling threatened.

"I think that goes back to just being around my grandfather -- knowing that it's not about rank; that it's about us collectively trying to work together to help our players and our team achieve success," McVay says. "I think it would be silly as a head coach that's doing this for the first time to pretend to know the answers to things that I don't know. It's not being afraid to say, Hey, I've got a great resource like a Wade Phillips [and ask him], 'What do you think is the best way to handle this?' And when you've got people around you that are better than you at what you do, that's where you've got a better chance to improve."

Says Shula: "He wants people that are smarter than him in their respective areas. He has no insecurities about learning from anybody."

McVay also lobbied Snead to acquire key veterans with whom he and his assistants were familiar -- players like Whitworth, Sullivan, Woods, outside linebacker Connor Barwin and cornerback Kayvon Webster (who suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon tear in a Dec. 10 defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles).

"The first criteria we set was, we wanted people with football character that were productive players and were people that we had some familiarity with," McVay says. "They helped set a tone, and then you couple those with the leaders who were already in place, like Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn and Alec Ogletree, and others can follow. It goes back to the influence my grandfather had on me -- when your leaders and your best players are the ones setting the example and the standard, you know you're giving yourself a chance, because nobody's above it."

As for McVay's ability to enunciate that standard, and convey it effectively to scores of proud men? Well, that wasn't necessarily a given.

"He's a pretty boy, and I always worried about him being strong enough in front of the guys [if and when he became a head coach]," says former Washington general manager Scot McCloughan. "But he has an edge to him. When you meet him, you wouldn't think that. But he's unique, and he's really, really intelligent."

And yet, with the exception of attempting to out-scheme opponents, McVay rarely weaponizes that intelligence.

"I think he knows a lot of times he's the smartest guy in the room, but he doesn't make you think that," Goff says. "Some of our coaches say they've been around guys that are super smart, maybe even as smart as Sean, but who are not necessarily as good at teaching, not nearly as personable. It's rare that you get both."

Says Barry: "He's really good with the team, and he gets better every single time. And it's not that he wings it, although he could. He could bulls--- his way through a team meeting and a [game plan] installation; he's that talented. But every single meeting we have is so well thought out, and his presentation is phenomenal. He's got that 'it' factor, but he also works his ever-living ass off. He works tirelessly at every single thing he does, whether it's a third-down play or a five-minute jolt speech he gives to the team every Friday morning."

McVay preaches accountability and harps on the fact that no one is bigger than the team. Those convictions are hardly unique; his penchant for self-scrutiny, however, drives those points home.

"He's got high expectations and standards for everyone, and it starts with himself," LaFleur says. "He's the first one to accept responsibility, even when it's not his fault. That's a pretty endearing quality. 'Cause the role of a head coach, it naturally puts you as the head guy, above everybody ... and he always knocks himself down to everyone else's level. People gravitate toward that, and appreciate it. He criticizes himself, and I think he makes it easier for everybody to do that when he does it in front of the team. Who wouldn't want to follow a guy like that? He lets people know it's OK to be vulnerable. And you know how many coaches don't do that."

Says Barry: "The way we build the 'We Not Me' thing, we tell the players, 'Hey, nobody is above being coached.' Every single time, he follows it with, 'Especially and including myself.' He says, 'No one's bigger than the team -- even me.' And he's incredibly hard on himself. The cool thing about it is, when you're around a guy like that, it kind of motivates you. You think, If this guy's crushing himself for something little, I've gotta pick my game up."

Being hard on himself might be McVay's nature, but in Cooley's eyes, the coach's willingness to do so openly is shrewd and calculated.

"I think he's really, really self-aware, in a lot of good ways," Cooley says. "In a football way, he's very cognizant of breaking tendencies. In terms of relating to others, he knows the way people view him, and in a social environment, he's observant. He's so aware if someone talks about him, even in the moment. And he's very aware of making sure to be critical of himself. It's not as common in today's NFL for people to be critical of themselves; everyone is trying to project strength. Being self-critical is probably the hardest thing for a young head coach. But Sean definitely is."

McVay might not have known it when he was telling his dad "I don't want to hear your pep talk" after fruitless youth-sports outings, but he was developing a philosophy he now considers essential to effective leadership.

"When you ask players to be receptive to coaching -- 'This isn't criticism, it's correction' -- I don't think you can be above that as a coach," McVay says. "If you're not willing to look at yourself critically and try to be accountable for the decisions that you've made, and to look at 'What is my responsibility?' in terms of trying to get things figured out, then I think it's hypocritical to ask the players to do that. I'm a big reader. I like these leadership books, and continuing to learn about self-improvement, how you can be the best version of yourself. I read this book, 'Extreme Ownership,' about the Navy SEALs, and one of the things they continue to talk about is the accountability. When you're accountable, I think it opens up the avenue for the people you're trying to lead to realize that, Hey, nobody's trying to pretend that they're perfect here, but we can all figure out a way to try to improve."

And yet, even by McVay's standards, the degree to which he pummeled himself after that defeat to the Redskins was severe. The Rams had opened the season with a 46-9 thrashing of the Indianapolis Colts that signaled a new level of offensive explosiveness; their Week 2 flop against Washington caused the rookie coach emotionally to implode.

Said Barry: "I'd be lying to you if I said he didn't want that one a little bit more."

"I feel like I pressed a little bit in that game -- maybe because that organization, it was such a big part of my life, and there were so many people there who you want to make proud," McVay says. "We talk about process over results, and it didn't necessarily have to do with the fact that we didn't win the game. It was the way we handled the flow of the game, where I felt like, just to be honest, I panicked. I was a big reason why we didn't win that game, and that's the truth."

In LaFleur's eyes, McVay "was way too hard on himself. He felt like he wasn't at his best, and he wasn't afraid to share that with the guys on the team. I know he was unhappy with our rhythm on offense, and he felt like it was on him. There was a moment of hesitation. He vowed that would never happen again, and it hasn't."

On a related note, here's one thing that hasn't happened under McVay, period: consecutive defeats. The Rams' four bounce-back victories have included triumphs over the playoff-bound Jaguars, the NFC South-leading Saints and, most recently, the Seahawks. To Shula, that's yet another sign that the players have bought into McVay's way.

"Since the day we got here, he set a tone for the culture by taking ownership of his actions," Shula says. "He takes accountability, and it has filtered through the team. If he can do it, and he's the smartest guy and the hardest worker in the building, then anyone should be able to."

* * * * *

Among McVay's close friends and colleagues, it is generally assumed that he has a photographic memory. If so, he's not copping to it.

"I don't know about that," he says. "I would say that I probably remember football stuff ... but it's not like you see it once and then it's just there. I go back and watch film, watch plays, and, in my brain, I probably only have room for so much. And that's why I don't really know much about anything else in this world but football, which my dad gives me grief about all the time."

McVay also gets grief from his colleagues -- for having a recall that borders on scary. Everyone, it seems, has at least one mind-blowing McVay Memory story.

Whitworth: "His memory is insane. A few days before the Indy game, I was sitting in his office talking about a play from a game from four years ago when I was with the Bengals. We threw a ball out in the flat to Gio Bernard, and he got absolutely destroyed. Sean literally stopped me in mid-sentence. He knew the play, the yardage, where [quarterback] Andy [Dalton]'s read was and who hit [Bernard]. I said, 'How the hell would you know that?' It didn't make any sense. But that's who he is."

Olson: "That 'Quick Z' pass we hit to (rookie tight end) Gerald Everett for [44 yards] against the Giants? When we put it in, Sean goes, 'Remember, we hit that in Tampa in '08 ... Jeff Garcia to Antonio Bryant?' I looked back, and he was right. That was nine years ago! When he interviewed Aaron Kromer for the job (as offensive line coach), Aaron mentioned that the way he did it in Buffalo was that the assistant was in a room right off his office, so it was easy for them to talk. It was just a throwaway line, and Sean had a million things going on. When Aaron took the job and got to the facility, Sean said, 'By the way, we don't have it so that (assistant offensive line coach Andy Dickerson) can be right by your office, but it's just down the hall.' Kromer's like, 'He remembered that?' "

Shula: "We were playing the Vikings this year, and on the bus on the way to the walkthrough the day before the game (at the University of Minnesota), he goes, 'Hey, remember we played at Minnesota (in college)? Eric Decker and Ernie Wheelwright balled; Adam Weber was the quarterback ...' And then he starts reciting the whole game."

LaFleur: "Every day, it's something. There's a play Jacksonville hit on Seattle (in a December victory), a touchdown pass in the high red area where the receiver stems inside, and we were watching it, and Sean said, 'Oh, yeah -- I remember Jacksonville hit that play on Seattle in 2013.' I thought, There's no way he knows that. But he did. It is the damnedest thing I've ever seen. We have a file called 'all-time cuts,' which is where we store all the instances in which every team has run various plays. This guy doesn't need an all-time cut library, 'cause he has the library in his head. It just makes you question your own intelligence. And what's really freaky about it is the guy doesn't sleep."

Goff: "He has such an amazing memory. He'll say, 'Hey, pull up that Washington play from 2013, against the Eagles ... I think it was the second play of the third quarter, second-and-4 from the 35.' And sure enough ..."

Much has been made of the fact that, on occasions when Goff gets the Rams lined up quickly, McVay will sometimes bark out "alerts" before the coach-to-quarterback communication system is automatically turned off with 15 seconds remaining on the play clock.

"I'm a second-year quarterback," Goff says. "Who, in my position, wouldn't want the benefit of a smart coach's input before the snap?"

Before the start of the season, McVay helped relieve pressure on Goff by telling him not to stress out about getting the ball to any specific player, no matter how fervently he might be lobbied. "Put that on me," he assured the quarterback. "You just run the offense."

McVay elaborates: "A lot of times when you've got good players, certainly there's a pressure of, you've gotta get this guy the ball X amount of times. It's Jared's job to execute the plays and the concepts based on what the defense presents. It's my job as a play caller, and it's our job as a coaching staff, to be smart with the selection of those plays to get guys involved."

Goff has executed the offense more proficiently in his first year with McVay than the coach could have imagined. Yet that's not what excites him most about his young quarterback. Rather, it's Goff's mental makeup -- his "stones," as the coach put it in September.

"I think the thing that really starts to separate him," McVay says, "and shows week in and week out, is that this guy's a fearless competitor. And one of his best traits is he's not afraid to fail. He doesn't let bad things affect him. He stays even-keeled at the tightest moments in the game. And this guy competes to win, which is what you want from your quarterback. Yes, you want a smart decision-maker who'll take care of the football, but you also don't want to be out there with a guy who's afraid to lose games, and he certainly is anything but that. And his confident demeanor and disposition, it almost rubs off on you. It certainly makes me feel more confident as a coach, and I know it resonates with his teammates. One of the things that's gonna make him special -- and I think he's gonna be special -- is that he's unflappable and fearless."

In other words, Goff's approach to quarterbacking is eerily similar to McVay's mindset as a play caller. It's the start of a potentially prodigious partnership, and if all goes well, it could last another decade, perhaps even a decade-and-a-half.

Says Goff: "I sure hope so."

* * * * *

"You've gotta come see the pool," McVay says, walking out from the great room onto his expansive patio and squinting his eyes amid the late-afternoon haze. He's not suggesting a quick swim or a pool-basketball battle; rather, he's showcasing the blackish soot that has dirtied the chlorinated water thanks to the nearby Skirball Fire, which earlier that week had been menacing enough to compel him and Veronika to stay in a hotel.

"It was really nasty a couple of days ago," McVay continues. "Things seem to be getting better, but we should probably go inside."

Soon we're sitting on high-top chairs at the marble island in his airy kitchen, featuring the best in "Viking" design, drinking Miller Genuine Drafts and talking ball. About 30 minutes in, there's a commotion at the front door, and McVay gets up from his chair with a huge smile: Chris Shula's parents, Dave and Leslie, have arrived from South Florida, and even Kali seems excited by their presence.

A few minutes later, Chris and his father join us at the countertop, and observing the coach-to-coach interplay is fascinating. Dave Shula -- son of Don, the legendary Hall of Famer who owns more wins than any coach in NFL history -- was the head coach of the Bengals from 1992 through '96. He was hired at the age of 32, which at the time made him the youngest coach in the league's modern era. Shula won his first two games but struggled thereafter, losing his job midway through the '96 season with a 19-52 record. He never coached again, instead working for the family business, and ultimately becoming the national brand ambassador of Shula's Steak Houses.

As McVay discusses some of his challenges as a rookie head coach, Shula nods knowingly, frequently chiming in with encouraging words that relate to his own experiences. At one point, when the subject turns to situational football, McVay shares a story from earlier that afternoon.

"We were showing the players the end of the Bears-49ers game," McVay says, "and the Niners ran down the clock to set up a game-winning field goal. I told them, 'Situationally, the right move there is to let them score (a touchdown on purpose), so you can get the ball back with time to answer. That's what we would do.' As I'm saying that, I notice Wade in the back, and he's shaking his head ... like, No way."

"I'll bet he was!" Dave Shula says, laughing.

Continues McVay: "I just looked at him and said, 'Waaaaaadddeee? Come on, now.' And we both cracked up."

As darkness descends on the Valley, McVay takes me upstairs to his home office, where a framed Kirk Cousins jersey rests prominently on the wall, with an inscription from the quarterback: "Sean, I owe you my career ..."

"Isn't that cool?" McVay says, sounding entirely age-appropriate for once.

To be fair, for an intensely driven young man who can be so hard on himself, McVay does have his share of carefree moments. Many coaches are socially awkward buzzkills who have trouble relinquishing control; McVay, by contrast, is typically the life of the party in an organic and effortless way. It's part of a unique makeup that tends to keep him from being envied by those who might be prone to doing so. As Barry puts it: "We know in this profession it's very uncommon for a person like that to be un-douche-like."

For all the McVay Memory stories, it's perhaps even more mind-blowing that this coaching supernova refuses to forget the forces that helped propel him to the top of his profession, and now of this vast city, literally and figuratively.

"What I do have is an appreciation for the fact that I've been very blessed and fortunate with timing, in getting opportunities that I wouldn't have otherwise gotten, if I weren't from a football family where my grandfather had so much success," he says. "I'm not naïve enough to think otherwise. It's not normal when you finish playing collegiate ball to be able to jump right into the NFL and work for Jon Gruden. That doesn't happen if you don't have your grandfather that has the connections and has earned the respect around this league. And for that, I feel very fortunate.

"And I'm not gonna shy away from that opportunity that I feel so thankful for. The only thing I can control is working as hard as I possibly can to do a good job and make people right on the opportunities that they've given me. As long as you try to carry yourself the right way, be a leader, demonstrate consistency and really try to help people continue to improve, and then not be afraid to say, 'I made a mistake, and I'll continue to try to fix that and be better for our team and for you guys moving forward' -- that's what's important."

As he finishes his thought, even in the smoky evening gloom, it all seems so perfectly clear: Yes, there will be plenty of Sunday nights when McVay comes home in a deep, dark funk. And then, inevitably, he'll wake up early, bright-eyed and engaged, and glide down over Mulholland, en route to the job he was born to do.